NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Will Elvis Presley See Revenge Against Media Mogul Rupert Murdoch?

The Australian Press Baron's Hatchet Job on Elvis May Have Helped Kill the King

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In case you have missed it, there is a very messy and convoluted media scandal underway in the United Kingdom involving Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. What it essentially boils down to is this: Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid — which has been the best-selling tabloid paper in the English-speaking world — has hired detectives over the years to hack into the cell phones of thousands of politicians, celebrities and other prominent people.

That practice turned deadly toxic with the newspaper turning to hacking into the cell phones of ordinary citizens, including a missing 13-year-old girl (who was murdered), the families of London train bombings terrorism victims and families of slain soldiers in Iraq.

The scandal has forced Murdoch to shut down the News of the World. It has also dragged British prime minister David Cameron, his government and the London police into the morass. It developed that the News of the World was bribing members of the police. The scandal could bring down the government. There is widespread speculation in the UK that this could break up Murdoch’s empire there, which includes the London Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun and a 39 percent interest in pay TV conglomerate BSkyB, which Murdoch had been attempting to buy outright until this hacking scandal finally forced him to back away. His holdings in the U.S. include the New York Post, the Fox Network, Fox News on cable TV and the Wall Street Journal. You will recall that Murdoch is also the man who paid $580 million for MySpace in 2005. He sold MySpace a few weeks ago in June for $30 million.

I first became aware of Murdoch and his creeping media tentacles in the early 1970s when I lived in Austin and regularly read the newspapers from Texas’ leading and more influential — or most interesting — newspapers. They included the San Antonio News and the San Antonio Express, which were suddenly acquired by the Australian press impresario Rupert Murdoch in 1973 as his launching pad into American journalism.

He later combined both newspapers as the San Antonio Express-News, but early on, he instructed the News staff to turn the paper into a “screamer.” And the paper soon did so. With a vengeance. The staff began introducing Murdoch’s patented tabloid formula of sensationalism, sex, celebrities, crime and corruption. The facts be damned.

The first visible signs that an Oz takeover was underway in San Antonio was in a series of alarmist Killer Bee headline stories in the News. As in “Killer Bees En Route to Texas.” More followed: “Armies of Insects Marching on S.A.,” “Aliens Fought Over Urine in Desert Battle,” “Uncle Tortures Tot With Hot Fork” and “Vampire Killer Stalks City.”

The News also continued Murdoch’s hostility to rock ‘n’ roll. When word came that the Rolling Stones’ San Antonio concert in 1975 would feature a giant inflatable phallus onstage, the News editorialized on the subject and heavily pressured San Antonio’s city government and police department to bust the Stones for obscenity if they showed the large structure onstage. After the city flooded the venue with police, police dogs and vice squad agents aplenty, the Stones relented and did not show the biggus dickus onstage — the only time that that happened on their 1975 Tour of the Americas.

That kind of institutionalized anti-rock company policy may well have been what led to the book that may have helped to kill Elvis Presley.

The 1977 book Elvis: What Happened? was a very messy tell-all expose, based entirely on interviews with three of Elvis’ formerly trusted aides and bodyguards who had recently been fired by Elvis’ father Vernon as part of a cost-cutting operation. The bodyguards, the brothers Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler, felt betrayed after being summarily dismissed after years of what they regarded as devotion to the King. They seemed to seek revenge. And they got it in Elvis: What Happened?

“We lost money,” Murdoch told Esquire magazine in 2008 in talking about the New York Post‘s finances. “Until one of our reporters wrote the ‘true story’ of Elvis Presley. We said we would serialize it, and it came out the day Presley died, completely by coincidence.”

The installments had actually been planned to run later, but Elvis’ sudden death prompted Murdoch to pounce. The New York Post began printing installments from the book the day that Elvis died. The first headline read, “New Book Tells of His Decline in Drug Nightmare.”

Objectively speaking, the book was a true Murdoch hatchet job. It laid out all of Elvis’ dirty laundry that you didn’t want — or need — to know. And it was all hearsay from the three bodyguards. No other sources are cited in the book at all. There are no voices to answer for Elvis. The book’s copyright is by Murdoch’s News Corporation. It became a best-seller, and the profits went to Murdoch’s News Corporation, not to the author. It was written by Steve Dunleavy, a hard-drinking, controversial Australian reporter greatly favored by Murdoch.

I did some lengthy interviews with Dunleavy (who has since died) for a story in Rolling Stone about the life and practices of a sensationalist tabloid journalist. Dunleavy proved to be the perfect example of a Rupert Murdoch mad-dog journalist, for whom anything goes to get a story. He told me that when he was once competing with his father — also an Australian reporter — on a crime story, Steve slashed his father’s tires to prevent him from getting to the crime scene.

When I met with Steve, he was then working for Murdoch’s grimy New York Post, as well as writing a column for Murdoch’s Star supermarket tabloid, and all of our interviews seemed to somehow end up taking place in Manhattan bars. I learned a lot of tabloid journalism tips from Steve. For example: “You know, Chet, when we write about an actress’s ‘charms,’ that’s shorthand for ‘tits.’” He was serious.

Dunleavy told me the assignment to do the Elvis book came from the very top. When I pressed him about his financial arrangements about the book, Dunleavy would only say, “Mr. Murdoch took care of me very well for the book.”

Steve would not say if he or the Post had paid for interviews with the three bodyguards for the project. Given the Murdoch empire’s lengthy history of buying interviews and paying out bribes, I suspect that was very likely the case. There were no cell phones back then, so they couldn’t have been hacked. But Dunleavy didn’t really need phone hacking. He got his dirt straight from Elvis’ former guys.

For the first time, the book revealed the full extent of Elvis’ complete and total dependence on a long list of prescription drugs. And it was not a pretty story. It was a virtual pharmacopia of drugs and other sundry and tawdry personal details about Elvis.

Close Elvis associates have said the book had a devastating effect on Presley. He read portions of an advance copy of it, became alternately depressed and enraged and was agitated to the point of talking about luring Red and Sonny to Graceland and then killing them.

The book was published in early August of 1977. Elvis died on the floor of his bathroom in Graceland two weeks later, on Aug. 16, 1977.

Rupert Murdoch: Anything for a buck.